St. Alexius Catholic church rests on a knoll, bordered by bur oaks which remember the ancient prairie, and looks over the fertile black farm fields that have made this place a prosperous agricultural region for 150 years. The church itself has been watching over the affairs of the village of West Union, in the southwest corner of Todd County, for the last 122 years. Oddly, the current population, which has been growing for 30 years, is now also 122.
It was the rich soils that brought settlers, and the Catholic monks who founded St. Alexius, to the area. It was the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, connecting them with St. Paul and Moorhead in 1879, that caused them to build a village along the tracks where West Union’s small commercial area is today.
In 1900, the date of village incorporation, there was a co-operative creamery, two grain elevators, two general stores, a blacksmith, hardware store, lumber yard, drug store, livery, and a restaurant.
Like so many agricultural communities built up along the railroad, West Union boomed and then declined in a matter of a couple of decades. West Union had an estimated 200 to 250 residents in 1900, according to the “Bicentennial History of Todd County.” After that peak, railroads began to decline, schools consolidated, farms became fewer, highways by-passed communities, and people moved away. By 1920 the population had declined to 161. Fifty years later West Union hit a rock bottom of 54 — two years before the Otter Tail Valley Western Railroad tore up the railroad ties.
But from that low of 54 souls, the population more than doubled over 30 years. Who knows what caused the increase? Maybe it was when the state, county and local citizens built the bicycle and snowmobile path which connects West Union to Sauk Centre, Osakis and Alexandria. Maybe it was the nice park with amenities which was built between the trail and Main Street. Maybe it was Sidewalks Bar and Grill, with it’s knockout delicious menu of 20 specialty burgers that did it. Maybe it was the town’s refusal to give up on its legendary 4th of July parade which has been held for 68 consecutive years. Maybe it was the parishioners of St. Alexius church and their annual October Sausage Fest. Or maybe it was that dark, ancient prairie soil that brought them all here in the first place. Who knows? West Union is growing again.